Less Anxiety; More Success

 

In a recent radio interview I was asked how students were different from when I began teaching over 30 years ago. One major change I’ve observed is that students suffer more anxiety today. It impacts their learning if they miss school, and when they are in class they struggle to focus. For those with serious anxiety disorders, professional help is a must, but for many students some changes at home can make a big difference. Here are four strategies to help your teen or preteen reduce anxiety and increase learning this year.

More reading. We live in a visual world, where we turn to YouTube for instructions instead of reading the manual, and we video chat instead of writing letters. But there are still benefits to reading words on a page, whether in an ebook or on paper. As readers create images in their brains, imagination and visualization skills increase. Mentally visiting other worlds, both make-believe and real, can reduce anxiety by providing a distraction and a chance to forget one’s problems for a while. Reading also builds vocabulary and writing skills. Non-fiction increases knowledge and can make one an expert on a favorite topic (“Did you know. . .?”). In my classroom I turn on soft instrumental music and turn down the lights, and the atmosphere becomes calm and peaceful. Students actually sigh with pleasure as they settle in to read.

More sleep. Because they’re still growing, teens need 8-10 hours of sleep a night, which they rarely get. But sleep is important for more than just growth. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “Mental health is both impacted by and impacts how well a person sleeps.” Teens who don’t get enough sleep are more prone to anxiety and depression. Not surprisingly, the biggest robber of adequate sleep is technology. Teens who take their phones to bed with them can be up past midnight using Snapchat to text–or sext–their friends, or they’re watching videos and playing games. Phones should be handed over to parents or parked in a designated spot at bedtime. Getting enough sleep also helps with focus, learning, and appearance. The latter might be enough to convince self-conscious teens to go to bed earlier, as a lack of sleep affects skin and hair quality. Because of changes in their circadian rhythm, teens may not fall asleep until 11:00 or later, but bedtimes should still be earlier, as even resting in a dark room has benefits.

Less social media. There’s growing evidence that more time spent on social media means more unhappiness for teens (check out an article from Child Mind Institute), often caused by feelings of insecurity and inadequacy when comparing one’s life to others’. Young teens also absorb information from Tumblr or Reddit without the experience or maturity to filter fact from sensationalism. It’s an interesting paradox that while social media keeps them more connected to one another, it also increases feelings of rejection if their posts are ignored or don’t get as many likes as their friends’ posts. Stalking and trolling (leaving mean comments) can also lead to hurt feelings. All of these emotions and relationship issues carry over into the classroom, making focusing on classwork difficult.

Less conflict. What are your battles? Homework? Chores? Appropriate clothing? Arguing and anger produce stress, which causes physical changes, including a rise in cortisol. Among other things, too much cortisol can interfere with learning and memory. Yelling and threatening will never result in a teen saying, “You’re right. I’ll change.” Okay, nothing makes them reply that way, but staying calm while holding firm to your values will get you further. Refrain from sarcasm and statements like “What are you thinking? You’re hopeless! I’m done with you!” that only cause defensiveness. Making your point is more important than issuing consequences or angering your teen, and stiffer penalties can lead to rebellion rather than compliance. Begin with clear expectations and don’t overreact to their responses. Expect respect, but if your teen glares at you or walks away muttering, just let it go. Regardless of how it appears, assume you’ve been heard. When you have to ground him or take away her phone, do it calmly and with few words. As Cynthia Tobias says, “Issue more tickets and give fewer lectures.” Years ago I compiled a “No-No List” of common mistakes parents make in trying to communicate; you can find it here.

 

Anxiety affects students regardless of their capabilities. Anything we can do both at home and in the classroom to ease their way can have a lifelong impact. But if you’re going to make changes, be sure to do so with the cooperation of your teen or preteen. Instead of demanding they read more, go to bed earlier, and spend less time on their phones, involve them in a discussion and invite their input. Problem-solve together and come up with a plan. That way, you’ll also have less conflict–and more success!

Sue currently teaches middle school at Concordia Lutheran School in Tacoma, Washington; she and Cynthia Tobias are co-authors of  Middle School, the Inside Story: What Kids Tell Us But Don’t Tell You, available online and in bookstores.

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Do This When She’s 1, Not When She’s 13

Last week I greeted one of my 8th grade girls with a question: “Did you see your mom’s new profile picture on Facebook?”

“No, is it bad?”

“It’s a picture of you, and let’s just say you look. . .joyful.”

“Can you show it to me?”

I pulled out my phone and she gasped in dismay. In the photo she was laughing hard, mouth wide open and eyes squeezed shut. It wasn’t an ugly picture, but it wasn’t very flattering, either.

The other girls clamored to see it, but she begged me not to show them. Even though I knew they’d be supportive, I honored her request to protect her dignity. After all, she’s 13, which is a huge year for self-consciousness, and I didn’t want to embarrass her. She talked to her mom that evening, and the picture changed to a 13-year-old holding a puppy and smiling serenely.

It may seem entertaining to embarrass a middle schooler, but the agony they experience is real. You could compare their pain to what adults feel when a significant other shares something that was meant to be kept secret. Add to that the feelings of inferiority experienced by most middle schoolers, and it’s no wonder they lash out at parents who fail to protect their reputation.

In this case, the mom was wise to quickly change the photo, regardless of how cute she thought it was. Parents who understand their middle schoolers’ discomfort and respect it have better relationships with their kids, because these are parents who can be trusted. And parents who can be trusted get to hear what’s on teenage minds and hearts.

Speaking of trust, I asked my student if I could use her picture in my post, and she said, “Oh, please, no!” Instead I used a picture of a friend’s joyful baby–because at the tender age of 18 months, she doesn’t mind at all! (And yes, her mom did give me permission on her behalf.)

Sue Acuña has taught middle school for over 20 years; she currently teaches at Concordia Lutheran in Tacoma, WA.

 

Screen Check!

My husband and I were on our Saturday breakfast date at IHOP when I spotted something unusual. “Look behind you!” I whispered. “See that table with the young couple and two little ones? The kids are coloring; the parents are chatting, and there are no electronics in sight!”

If you do a Google search on “how screens affect kids’ brains,” you’ll get disturbing results. There’s clear evidence that interacting with phones and tablets is affecting the way kids learn. But more frightening is the impact screens have on adolescents. A PBS article, “The Drug-like Effect of Screen Time on the Teen-age Brain,” says around half of all teens feel they are addicted to their devices, and many families argue about screens daily. The good news is that self-control and less time on devices can be taught, but first it has to be modeled.

If you feel your teen is addicted to screens, check your own usage first (and consider limiting yourself), and then have frank discussions with your kids regarding your family’s tablet or phone habits. You may want to set some new rules for all of you, but be sure to involve everyone in the process to increase chances for cooperation. Some good rules are:

  1. No screens at mealtimes, whether at home or in a restaurant.
  2. No screens in bedrooms at night.
  3. No eyes on phones during conversations.

Check in with each other weekly to see how everyone’s progressing, and encourage one another rather than nagging or berating. A code word or phrase might be a helpful reminder: “Screen check!”

As my husband and I left the restaurant, I stopped and complimented the young parents, telling them they were rocking this parenting thing. They were surprised but pleased. I’m pretty sure they won’t be in a hurry to buy their children phones–and those two cute kids will be better off for it!

Sue Acuña has taught middle school for over 20 years; she currently teaches at Concordia Lutheran in Tacoma, WA.

When Is a Calculator Not a Calculator?

If you were to pick up your teen’s phone and see the above icon, it wouldn’t raise your suspicions.  It’s designed that way, to look innocent and practical.  And while it can be used as a calculator, its actual purpose is to hide pictures and files from prying parental eyes.  All the phone user has to do is enter a secret code to access whatever has been hidden from the regular photo app.

There are many similar apps available to download.  I googled “Apps for Hiding Photos” and received quite an education.  Some of the apps have more obvious names like Photo Vault or KeepSafe.  Others have ambiguous names like KYMS or Fotox.

How can parents find out if their teens have hidden apps?

  1. Have full access to any electronic devices, which means either knowing passcodes and passwords or getting them upon request.  Just the possibility of parents checking up on them will keep many teens from using phones for inappropriate activities.
  2. Take steps to insure apps can’t be downloaded without a password known only by the parents.  Change the password occasionally.
  3. Monitor your teen’s phone or tablet.  Occasionally ask about apps, especially new ones.  Go to the App Store on an iPhone, Google Play on an Android, or Microsoft Store/Marketplace on a Windows phone and check out the purchased apps.  If it says “Open,” that means it’s on the phone.  If there’s a picture of a cloud with an arrow pointing down, it’s been downloaded but is no longer being used.    If it says “Get,” it hasn’t been downloaded.

Some parents are afraid of invading their teen’s privacy by taking such steps.  I like to ask if they’d allow their teen to have a stranger in the bedroom with the door closed.  Allowing unmonitored use of any device with internet access carries the same risks.  Wise parents will engage in a little privacy invasion to protect their teens.

And just FYI, most – if not all – smartphones come with built-in calculators.  Real ones.

8 Helpful Things About Social Media

somedSometimes it’s spit out like a curse: “Blame it on social media.”  But there really are some good points to texting, Twitter, Facebook, and the like.  Let’s take a look at eight good uses of social media.

1. Finding old friends. My first students knew me as “Miss Chan.”  Not long after my husband and I married, we moved to Washington.  I figured my first students wouldn’t remember my married name, so I wouldn’t hear from them again.  I don’t know how the first one found me on Facebook, but soon an avalanche of friend requests arrived from her classmates.  I was as taken aback to see them with spouses and children as they were to realize I was only 22 when I taught them.  High school friends, college buddies, parents of both (and of old boyfriends)–almost everybody is out there somewhere, and if they’re not, you can be sure one of their family members is!

2. Keeping tabs on family.  When my children were in college, I’d use Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr to know what was going on in their lives–not just so I knew when to be concerned, but also because it gave me a starting point for conversation: “Who were you talking about in that tweet?”  Facebook now helps me keep tabs on my aging mom, because when I see her like someone’s post, I know she’s up and moving.

3. Sending short messages.  Whose day hasn’t been made by a text or a message saying, “I’m thinking about you; have a great day”?  This is a great way for parents of teens to communicate their love without causing embarrassment.  If it’s a good day, you’ll even get a “Luv u 2” text in return!

4. Sharing pictures. While we may tire of selfies and food pics, some pictures can be worth far more than 1000 (typed) words.  When my math students need help, they send me a picture of the offending story problem along with what they’ve already tried, and I know where to start my tutorial.  When my mom has an error message on her iPad, she texts my son a “screenshot” (taken with her phone), and he knows how to help.  Every year I have 8th grade girls text me photos of their outfits, asking if they’re within dress code (though I usually tell them if they have to ask, it probably isn’t).

5. Creating peace of mind.  In my family, we text somebody when we arrive home safely.  Again, this is a great way to keep track of my aging mom as well as my sons, the twenty-somethings.  When they were in  high school, I told my boys I didn’t care where they went (an untruth), but if they didn’t make it home, I needed their last known whereabouts so I’d know where to start my search.

6. Making appointments.  I love scheduling medical appointments online.  I also schedule parent conferences by emailing the first draft of my schedule to parents and letting them request changes as needed.  Parents will text me midday and ask to meet after school.  And sometimes my husband and I will plan a last-minute dinner date after work!

7. Finding important–and not-so-important–information.  When my husband and I wanted to install an auxiliary port in our new used car, I went to YouTube and learned how.  When I needed lesson plans to teach physical science, I went to Pinterest.  There’s a whole community of friendly strangers at your fingertips, just waiting to give you advice.

8. Knowing when to pray.  In the “old days” (think the year 2000), having an email prayer list was an awesome invention.  Now, with a single post I can set in motion a prayer chain of hundreds, some of whom I’ll never even know.  There’s great comfort in knowing so many prayers are being lifted so quickly.  On the flip side, when one of my friends or students needs my prayers, I hear right away.  It’s not unusual for a student to contact me on Facebook with a message: “My grandma’s in the hospital; can you pray?”

Social media has its limitations, and we all need to use it with discretion, but it can simplify our lives in many ways.  Today’s teens won’t remember life without it, so it’s our responsibility to teach them how and when to use it appropriately.

Want some tips on how to do that?  Check it out on Pinterest.

A Peek Inside the Cyber World of Teens

You know about Facebook and Instagram–you may even have your own accounts—but what about Snapchat, Tumblr, or Kik?  How many YouTube celebrities can you name?  While some parents are blissfully (and frighteningly) ignorant about what teens do online, others may think they’re in the know (but aren’t).  If you don’t regularly access your teenager’s phone/tablet/computer, or if you have no idea how it even works, chances are you’re leaving your child vulnerable to more dangers than you realize.

I came across an article that I’d like to recommend, written by a young high school teacher who knows much more about the options available to teens on the internet than I ever will.  I encourage you to check it out (click anywhere on the picture to open the link):

For Every Mom

Photo via For Every Mom

21st Century Students

blg scrsAs I laid out the schedule for our upcoming PE unit on bowling, I told my class I would teach them how to keep score.  “But why,” asked a puzzled student, “when the machines will do that for us?”

While it sounds like a line from a science fiction movie, it’s an issue I face daily. As a teacher in a 21st-century classroom, I’m often faced with the question of how useful a skill is now and how useful it will be in the near future.  Debates rage in social media over whether we should be teaching cursive, but there are other issues: analog (clock face) vs. digital time; multiplication tables vs. calculators; keyboarding vs. voice (or just thumbs). . .

The list of no-longer-taught items continues to grow: dictionary guide words, the library card catalog, using encyclopedias.  But at the same time, the list of necessary new skills also grows: validating online research, uploading an assignment, creating presentations on PowerPoint/Prezi/Keynote, using the Help feature on a new app or program.

When someone says students should know how to write in cursive or read a wristwatch in case their electronics break down, I point out that few of us can saddle a horse, make bread from scratch, or milk a cow.  When our cars break down, we find a ride; when we run out of bread or milk, we buy or borrow some.  We never go back to “the old ways.”  Humans have an amazing ability to adapt and to cope.

There will always be an overlap of new skills with old; for example, sometimes I use Google to look up an answer and other times I ask SIRI.  Sometimes I look at an online map before I go and other times I just trust my phone’s GPS.  See how quickly new skills become old?

Yes, some day there may be an electromagnetic pulse that will stop all electricity and radio waves, like in sci-fi movies.  If that day comes, we will need to learn to live off the land, or use Morse code, or draw water from a well.  The “old skills” will become the new ones that everyone needs to know.  And we will adapt.

In the meantime, I’m going to sharpen some pencils and teach my kids how to score a strike.  For old time’s sake.